Alice Munro’s short story “Royal Beatings” explores the world of a depression era family weighted down by poverty and longing in rural Ontario. This coming-of-age story focuses on the central character, Rose; her father; her stepmother, Flo; and her half brother, Brian. They occupy a colorless, frayed, and tired world and live behind the family-run store. As the story opens, we learn that Rose is at a stage in life where she has “pushed any discovery aside with embarrassment and dread” (3). We also learn that she is subject to almost ritualistic beatings from time to time.
As Rose gradually matures, the story deals with separation and division at multiple levels: the physical division between the more prosperous town of Hanratty from the worn streets of West Hanratty; the time before and after Rose’s mother’s death, a period that coincided with relative affluence enhanced “with little touches such as eggcups”(2); the differences in one’s public and private personae, including those private occurrences easily heard through the bathroom door but never acknowledged; and, especially, the divisions between what is revealed and what is hidden within a relationship. For example, Rose overhears her father talking to himself while working in a shed separate from the store, where he operates a furniture and upholstery repair business. She hears him quote Prospero from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and is alarmed to discover that “the person who spoke these words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space” (4).
Rose’s world before and after the first of ongoing “royal beatings” is foreshadowed by the appearance of a frequent store customer named Becky Tyde. Becky suffered polio and Rose observes that now it is “hard to believe that she had started out differently” (7). The townsfolk believe Becky’s father abused both her and her effeminate brother, Robert, whom she calls Roberta. When people suspected that her butcher father had impregnated her, he was murdered by three “useless young men” (8), including Hat Nettleton, who worked on the town dray and appears at the very end of the story. Rose learns about these hidden tales through Flo’s irrepressible love of gossip.
Rose becomes increasingly aware of the sinister truths all around her and the distance between her former views and her more enlightened views when, at the center of the story, Munro details Rose’s first beating. On a Saturday when Flo is not taking her customary trip uptown, visits during which she hears about and mingles with the more affluent townsfolk, she begins to chastise Rose for teaching a suggestive rhyme to Brian. Rose does not back away from the conflict and, in fact, finds a certain pleasure in closing in on “the spark and spit of craziness” (4) coming her way. Here, Munro offers even more of the visual and sensory details that point to and increase the sense of foreboding: There is a dirty red rubber pad, Rose can feel the cool oil cloth on the kitchen table where she sits, and the shorts she wears smell moldy from winter storage.
Flo’s temper builds, and she runs to the shed to summon Rose’s father, because “she and Rose can carry this no further by themselves” (16). As Rose’s father begins hitting Rose with a leather strap, she and Flo have difficulty in believing that “there comes a time when you can’t draw back” (18) or that “there is nothing that can’t happen” (19). Here Rose realizes that “treachery is the other side of dailiness” (19), and as Flo pleads for Rose’s father to stop the beating, the central concern is less about the physical and emotional injury than that Rose’s cries could be overheard by others.
After the beating, Rose’s father and Flo begin to argue, and through their dispute they begin to return to their nonviolent selves, where “they will be embarrassed, but rather less than you might expect considering how they have behaved” (22). The familial pattern with this violence includes Flo’s postbeating ministrations, during which she goes to Rose’s door with the little girl’s favorites: chocolate milk made with Vita Melt, sandwiches filled with salmon of “first quality and reddest color” (21), butter tarts, and chocolate biscuits. At this point, Rose gains “a sure knowledge of the whole down-spiraling course of events from now on” (21). The story’s penultimate scene points up the degree to which Rose’s family is caught in the divisions, separations, and delusions that allow them to believe they are better than they are, and somehow better than the other poor of the community. Rose’s father reveals, with a sneer, that some of the store customers believe the planet Venus is an airship. Rose and her father are united in knowing the difference between a planet and a fallacy, discernment Rose enjoys thinking Flo does not share with her and her father.
The story concludes with a scene in which Rose, now a grown woman living in Toronto, hears Hat Nettleton interviewed on the radio. Here Munro masterfully demonstrates the way time acts as the greatest modifier, for, given enough years, even a man partly responsible for a murder can be refashioned into a charming storyteller caught in a seemingly harmless web of nostalgia.
Munro, Alice. “Royal Beatings.” In Carried Away: A Selection of Stories. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006.